R3: Investigating the visual cognitive processing demands of AAC interfaces

r3 eyetracking

Team Leaders: J. Light, K. Wilkinson, D. Beukelman,  S. FagerT. Jakobs (Invotek), D. Hershberger (Saltillo)

Katie has a genetic disorder resulting in motor, hearing and vision impairments. She has a tracheotomy and requires AAC to express herself. Her high school team introduced her to AAC technology but she is struggling to use it effectively. By the time she locates the messages she wants to communicate, she has missed her opportunity to participate in class. She has to concentrate so much on finding vocabulary on her AAC device that she frequently misses what her teachers are saying. Are there better ways to design the AAC interface to reduce the processing demands and enhance Katie’s performance so that she can maximize her education?

Challenge: Use of AAC technologies presents multiple and unique cognitive processing demands. Individuals with complex communication needs (CCN) must formulate the message and hold it in working memory, while simultaneously recalling where target concepts are located, navigating to the target display, locating the target symbol(s) within the display, and inhibiting  interference from other display elements, all while attending to the ongoing demands of interactions at school, at work, at home, or in the community.

Goal: The goal of this project is to investigate the visual cognitive processing demands of AAC displays to optimize the human computer interface and thereby enhance communication performance.

This project will involve a series of studies using eye tracking research methods to investigate visual processing demands with different population groups. The first set of studies will investigate ways to design AAC displays to reduce the demands of navigation and improve performance. Specifically, we will investigate the effects of the orientation and location of menu bars (i.e., vertical left of display, vertical right of display, horizontal top, horizontal bottom). We will use eye tracking research methods to measure the latency and duration of eye gaze to features of the AAC display. These data will be used to design AAC displays that maximize immediate allocation of visual attention to important elements and that minimize attention to distractions, thereby enhancing performance.

Additional independent variables to improve the design of AAC displays will be identified and investigated in a third set of studies pending the results of these first two sets of studies.


Beukelman, D. R., Hux, K., Dietz, A., McKelvey, M., & Weissling, K. (2015). Using visual scene displays as communication support options for people with chronic, severe aphasia: A summary of AAC research and future research directions. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 31, 234-245.

Brown, J., Thiessen, A., Beukelman, D., & Hux, K. (2015). Noun representation in AAC grid displays: Visual attention patterns of people with traumatic brain injury. Augmentative and Alternative Communication31, 15-26.

Wilkinson, K. M., & Mitchell, T. (2014). Eye tracking research to answer questions about augmentative and alternative communication assessment and intervention. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 30, 106-119.

Thiessen, A., Beukelman, D., Hux, K., & Longenecker, M. (2016). A comparison of the visual attention patterns of people with aphasia and adults without neurological conditions for camera-engaged and task-engaged Visual Scenes. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 59, 290-301.

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